“The mythworld is structured like a forest or an animal. It wakes and feeds and sleeps and dreams and changes. And it is made of separate parts that live or die.“
— Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p.133
This is my telling of Raven Steals the Beavers’ Pond for this day, with gratitude to the Haida people, whose story this is & to all the peoples of the North American NW Coast who tell Raven stories (and have done so since the beginning); to Skaay, the Haida storyteller who told this tale to American anthropologist John R. Swanton in the late-19th/early-20th century; to Swanton who recorded it & to the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst who offered a new translation (A Story as Sharp as a Knife); and to all the others — including especially Bill Reid (Haida artist) & David Wagoner (American poet) — who have kept the story alive, recognizing that to be Alive is to Change.
I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.
Raven was going along. After awhile, he came to the start of a trail down to the beach, so down he went to the beach and down he sat on the sand. Soon two Beaver people came along and Raven began to weep and sob. When the Beaver people asked him what was wrong, Raven answered, “I am tired and hungry. But I’ve heard we have the same grandmother….. Perhaps…..”
Immediately those Beaver people, who’d been heading out to gamble with friends, turned around and said, “We will help you. Come to our house.”
After awhile, they came to the Beavers’ house — and what a wonderful house it was! The entry was surrounded by huge figures carved of cedar. There was a rock-lined fire-pit in the middle and an exquisitely carved screen across the far end.
“Please come in,” the Beaver people welcomed him. “We shall prepare a feast.” They sat their guest in the place of honor and, striking together two pieces of quartz, they started a fire. Then one of the people went behind the screen and returned with a big fresh-caught salmon, its scales glistening. That salmon was so big, it took both the Beaver’s arms to carry him! As the salmon roasted over the fire, fat dripped down onto the coals and a delicious aroma filled the house.
When the salmon was done to perfection, they gave the best and largest portion to their guest. Then one of the people went behind the screen again and returned with a basket full of the juiciest cranberries Raven had ever seen. It was a feast indeed!
Raven watched carefully. Raven was curious. Where did the Beaver people get such delicious fresh food? Raven wondered and wondered.
That night, after yet another luscious feast, those Beaver people made their guest a bed near the fire where he’d be warm, and they all said goodnight.
Raven lay very still and closed his eyes. He waited. He waited. Then, when he heard the Beavers begin to snore, Raven got up quietly, quietly. And quietly, quietly he walked to the back of the house. And quietly, quietly, he peeked behind the beautifully carved screen.
Raven’s eyes got big, then bigger. He opened his eyes as wide as he could. Even Raven was amazed by what he saw! A beautiful clear lake stretched out before him. Fish were jumping all across the lake and a fish trap near the end of the lake was shaking, full of salmon. He saw canoes, their prows stained bright red as they cruised through the dense cranberries. Raven wanted that lake.
The next morning, the Beavers once again struck together the pieces of quartz to start their fire. Again, one of the Beavers went behind the screen and quickly returned with a fresh fat salmon. They prepared it and roasted it and gave the largest portion to their guest. And when they’d all finished the delectable salmon, the other Beaver went behind the screen and brought out a basket overflowing with plump cranberries.
When they had finished eating, the Beavers set off to gamble with their friends, telling Raven to be comfortable in their house until they returned in the evening. Raven watched the Beaver people walk down the beach. He watched and watched until they were out of sight.
Raven went back into that house. He went behind the beautifully carved screen. And then Raven began to roll up that lake. He rolled and rolled up all the lake and even rolled up the Beavers’ house! And Raven tucked the roll under his arm like a blanket and sat up high in a nearby tree.
When the Beavers got back, they saw no house. They saw no lake. They saw only Raven up in a tree with a bundle tucked under his arm — and Raven was laughing.
The details of how things happen in the story vary from one teller to the another — even from one telling to another by the same storyteller. So, of course, what happens next in this story varies. [I won’t talk about how the story “ends,” because it is still alive & isn’t finished teaching us yet!] In Skaay’s version as translated by Bringhurst, the Beavers chop down many trees while Raven hops from one to the next with his bundle still under his arm. Finally, the Beavers give up and depart to find another lake. In other versions (reminiscent of Raven Steals The Sun), as Raven flies off with the bundle in his beak, he loses his grip and the lake spills out, creating all the lakes and rivers of Haida Gwaii and what is now known as British Columbia.
I tell this story today because truly Water IS Life. I give thanks for the many blessings of Water.
What do we hope for the next chapter in our Story of Water? How can we make it so?
My sister & her partner live in a drought-stricken part of northern California near Mt. Shasta. This past week, their well went dry. No piped water in their rural area. They are now on the well-drillers’ waiting list but were told it would be 9 to 12 months.
Every day we hear more of both droughts and floods; of rising seas and dwindling rivers; of wetlands being “developed” and aquifers going dry; of the restrictions of out-of-date water “rights” agreements and the increase in corporate control; and of the on-going pollution and poisoning of Earth’s waters, and…and….and………..
Now feels like an important time for each of us to examine the relationships (physical, historical, and spiritual) that we have with Water — both as individuals & as members of our society.
We are the ones creating the story…..and it isn’t finished yet…..